Lorenzo Dow Turner, PhD’26

A linguist who identified the African influences in the Gullah dialect.

By Jason Kelly

Photo courtesy Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

An overheard conversation inspired Lorenzo Dow Turner, PhD’26, to become a linguistic detective. While teaching summer school at South Carolina State College in 1929, Turner listened as two students spoke what sounded like broken English.

To others, that’s all it was—a remnant of a pidgin language that slaves adapted from white influences. Turner, who had a Harvard master’s degree in education along with an English PhD from Chicago, heard the echoes of something more formal, although he couldn’t understand a word.

He asked the students what language they were speaking. “We’re Gullah,” they said, referring to cloistered communities of slave descendants on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Their response sparked what would grow into the defining ambition of Turner’s professional life: tracing the roots of Gullah vocabulary and culture. Other linguists had studied it before, but they determined that it contained no vestiges of African languages.

Reed Smith of the University of South Carolina believed that Gullah emerged as slaves altered the European-influenced English of white settlers. The Africans, he wrote in a 1926 pamphlet, would “wrap their tongues around it, and reproduce it changed in tonality, pronunciation, cadence, and grammar to suit their native phonetic tendencies.”

About the time Turner first heard Gullah, University of North Carolina’s Guy B. Johnson declared, “This strange dialect turns out to be little more than the peasant English of two centuries ago.” He found the perceived absence of African language influences “startling” but attributable to slavery’s devastating cultural effects.

Turner believed African influences remained. Although there is very little in Gullah that is not drawn from English, says University of Chicago linguistics scholar Salikoko Mufwene, PhD’79, Turner was the first to prove that “one cannot account for the origins ... ignoring the languages that the slaves had brought from Africa.”

A Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum exhibit—Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities through Language, in Washington through March 27—maps the journey Turner took to account for those origins. “As he got more used to the speech, he could hear in there the English words, but there were words that were not English,” curator Alcione Amos says. “It dawned on him that these are probably African words.”

Using a 100-pound recorder, Turner preserved the language on audio, some of which can be heard in the Anacostia exhibit. He interviewed residents of the islands where Gullah was spoken. Some of the islands were so remote that Turner could not conduct the interviews there; he had to transport the participants by rowboat to the mainland, where there was electricity for the recorder.

The effort paid off with a glimpse into the conditions that allowed the culture to endure slavery. On Sapelo Island, Georgia, for example, “the slaves were the majority of the population; they were very isolated,” Amos says. “There was the white family that owned the island and the plantation, and then everybody else was black. Even sometimes the overseers—the drivers, as they were called—were African. So in that sense the culture could develop and could be kept.”

To gain entry into that close-knit environment, Turner sought out community leaders to verify his credentials. “The Gullah culture is still a very closed culture. You can’t get in and just get things done. You have to be introduced, and people have to say that you are bona fide,” Amos says. “He was a very cordial and polite man, and he would sit down and talk and get himself friendly with the people.”

Turner’s determination was rooted in a family commitment to education. The youngest of four boys, Turner was born August 21, 1890, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. His father, Rooks Turner, who started school at age 21, went on to earn a master’s degree from Howard University. Two of Turner’s brothers pursued medicine and law degrees, and he went headlong into the humanities.

Majoring in English at Howard, he graduated in 1914. After completing his master’s at Harvard, he returned to Howard to teach from 1917 to 1928, including eight years leading the English department, overlapping with his summer doctoral studies at Chicago. Zora Neale Hurston was among Turner’s students at Howard. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, the novelist writes that she was so taken by his “wavy black hair” and “soft and restrained delivery” that she wanted to become an English teacher herself.

In 1929 Turner became head of the English department at Nashville’s Fisk University, where he founded the African-studies program. He moved to Chicago’s Roosevelt College in 1946 as the first black professor hired at a white institution: Roosevelt had been founded a year earlier as a “democratic haven” that would not discriminate on racial or religious grounds. Turner also established that school’s African-studies curriculum, and he continued his quest to unlock Gullah.

What Turner heard in the South Carolina and Georgia communities was an amalgam of English and multiple African languages. Slaves were brought from the West African “rice coast” to ports in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, where they were valuable laborers in a region with thousands of thriving acres.

The sheer volume of labor necessary in the vast fields, and Africans’ resistance to tropical fevers that plagued European settlers, eventually resulted in a majority black population. As the original African languages fragmented and fused with the dominant English, Gullah emerged as a distinctive dialect. “One thing people couldn’t take away from [the slaves] was their language,” Amos says. “The language came in their minds.”

Within Gullah’s English-based vocabulary, Turner identified African “loanwords,” such as cootuh (turtle), buckra (white man), nyam (eat), and swonguh (boastful). “His most substantive evidence of African influence is to be found in the list of 3,600 ‘basket names,’” Chicago’s Mufwene says, referring to nicknames of African origin given to Gullah children. Turner also showed expressions of “grammatical number,” such as da boy dem (the boys), and “serial verb constructions”—come kyah me home (come carry me home)—which have English parallels, but Gullah speakers use the constructions more extensively.

To establish that Gullah borrowed from African languages, Turner first had to learn them. In 1936 he began studying at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. There he found the connections to Gullah even stronger than he had anticipated.

His London education was both academic and anecdotal. His formal work focused on a half-dozen languages, and Turner used the material he gathered in the United States to supplement his understanding. “He would play the records to African students who were in London studying,” Amos says. “These people would listen to the records and identify the African words that were being said.”

In 1938 Turner studied Arabic at Yale, discovering sources of other Gullah phrases, including a religious tradition called a “ring shout.” He determined that the “shout” derived from sha’wt, which refers to the act of circling the sacred Islamic Kaaba building during a pilgrimage to Mecca. The word came from Muslim slaves who were brought to the Sea Islands. There it blended with call-and-response singing and dancing to form the “ring shout” ritual.

For almost two decades Turner stitched together what he called “specimens of the dialect,” word by painstaking word. The effort culminated with his landmark 1949 book, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (University of Chicago Press), which remains a standard reference text.

It was considered not only the defining work of Gullah language and culture but also the beginning of a new field, African American studies. “Until then it was pretty much thought that all of the African knowledge and everything had been erased by slavery. Turner showed that was not true,” Amos says. “He was a pioneer. He was the first one to make the connections between African Americans and their African past.”

Turner helped expand those connections from 1962 to 1966, when Roosevelt was a training site for Peace Corps volunteers. To prepare secondary-school teachers for work in Sierra Leone, he taught them Krio, the language of 16 ethnic groups in the country.

Turner’s Peace Corps teaching drew from recordings of the Gullah communities in the United States and artifacts collected during fieldwork in Brazil and Africa. He published two Krio texts in the early 1960s before retiring from Roosevelt in 1966.

Turner died in 1972 at age 81. His approach to discovering Gullah’s African influences, called the substrate hypothesis, continues to be “influential in research on the origins of creoles and African American vernacular English or Ebonics,” Mufwene says.

Yet as relevant as his work remains, Turner’s greatest contribution may have been in highlighting how Gullah preserved a heritage considered lost. As the exhibit program notes, Turner “proved irrefutably that slavery had not completely obliterated the memory of Africa and its victims.”

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